Faced with a battle to make the Red Sox' rotation this spring and a neck problem that, in his words, has "made it harder and harder to throw a baseball and throw it like I'm accustomed to throwing it," Ryan Dempster informed the team on Sunday that he will not pitch this season. Speaking to the media at Boston's spring camp on Sunday, Dempster, who will be 37 in May, explicitly said that he is not retiring, but almost everything else he said made it sound as if that is effectively what he is doing. For now, he's being placed on the restricted list by the Red Sox and will thus forfeit his $13.25 million salary for 2014, the second and final year of his contract.
"After a long offseason and thinking about things and seeing where I was at both physically and personally, I just made the decision that I'm not going to pitch in the 2014 season and go from there," Dempster said. "I had an incredible run, a chance to play 16 years in the major leagues and be around a lot of great teammates, made a lot of good friendships, a lot of great memories, you know, but I just feel that given where I'm at with my health, with how I feel personally, I just feel like it's in the best interest of both myself and the organization as a team to not play this year. I don't feel like I can compete or produce like I'm accustomed to. So I'm not going to play this year."
Dempster was expected to compete with 26-year-old lefty Felix Doubront for the final spot in the Red Sox' rotation this spring behind Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey and Jake Peavy. In 29 starts and three relief appearances last year, his first with Boston, Dempster went 8-9 with a 4.57 ERA (89 ERA+) walking 4.1 men per nine innings, his worst rate since converting back to starting in 2008, and giving up 1.4 home runs per nine innings, the worst rate of his career. Over his final 11 regular season starts, he posted a 5.59 ERA, though the eventual world champion Red Sox went 9-2 in those games. In the 2013 postseason, Dempster was relegated to the bullpen, making just one single-inning appearance in each round of the playoffs, and he mentioned the last of those outings with pride on Sunday.
"To sit there and think about the last batter I potentially could ever face in the big leagues was a strikeout to end Game 1 of the World Series," said Dempster, "What better way to really write it?"
The Red Sox won't lack for starting pitching depth without Dempster given the presence of former Dodgers prospects Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, swing man Brandon Workman, near-ready prospect Anthony Ranaudo and knuckleballer Steven Wright, all of whom are on the 40-man roster. Meanwhile, the $13.25 million they won't be paying Dempster in the coming year could be used either now or at the trading deadline to reinforce their current roster.
One popular bit of speculation is that Boston will use that money to finally come to terms with free agent shortstop Stephen Drew, whose November rejection of the team's qualifying offer appears to have dried up the market for his services. The Red Sox have expressed interest in bringing Drew back, and the only other team to have been repeatedly connected to Drew has been the Mets, whose interest has never appeared to be more than lukewarm. The Sox didn't necessarily need Dempster to step aside to afford Drew, however, and Drew's return is not guaranteed by Dempster's announcement on Sunday.
The most striking thing about Dempster's announcement, however, is how unexpected it was and how rare it is for a player to walk away from guaranteed money. Think of the high-profile players who have retired this offseason, including (in no particular order) Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt, Michael Young, Ted Lilly, Jake Westbrook, Jerry Hairston Jr, and, unofficially, Travis Hafner and Jason Bay. All did so as free agents. The last time a player walked away from a salary comparable to Dempster's was in January 2011, when the Royals' Gil Meche retired due to shoulder problems, forfeiting his $12 million salary for the final year of his contract. Prior to that, Mark McGwire retired in November 2001 with two years and $30 million left on his contract with the Cardinals, and Ryne Sandberg retired in June 1994 more than $15 million left on his deal, though he returned in 1996 and played two more years at a lower salary. Technically, Dempster left the door open for his return in 2015. Still, to hear him talk on Sunday, it would seem he has thrown his last pitch in the major leagues.